Mo Yan: The controversial Nobel laureate

Mo Yan. Foto: Fredrik Sandberg / SCANPIX
Mo Yan. Foto: Fredrik Sandberg / SCANPIX

When Mo Yan accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature Monday afternoon he will become the first ever non-dissident Chinese person to win a Nobel Prize. His pick has been contentious since it was announced by the Nobel Committee in Stockholm back on October 11.

Published måndag 10 december 2012 kl 13:30

The 57-year old writer has written 11 major novels, and over one hundred long and short stories.

His work has been described as earthy, unrestrained, fanciful and sometimes outrageous. Mo writes about peasant struggles, reality and he uses humor and satire.

But it is not Mo Yan's words on the page, but rather the unspoken words that have angered Chinese dissidents, human rights activists and others.

"Mo Yan is obviously a very skilled and fantastic novelist,” says Björn Widman, the head of the culture department at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. “On the other hand, he has become, whether he likes it or not, a representative for a  very brutal dictatorial regime, the Chinese Communist party.”

For the past month, the paper has been running a series of articles on Mo – many have been critical, some have been positive.  

Critics of Mo say he is too close to the Chinese Communist party and too cozy with the establishment. They say as the vice president of the state-backed writer's association, he has not stood up for freedom of speech or human rights.

At a press conference in October, Mo did call for the release of jailed 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. But he said at the time that the Nobel prize was an award for literature not politics.

Since his pick however, much of the focus has indeed been on the political.

Björn Widman at Dagens Nyheter says all writers winning the Nobel prize in literature should be examined from a political point of view.

“You can be a fantastic novelist and also be part of a regime that is not so fantastic and this is the case with Mo Yan,” Widman says.

But Göran Sommardal, a culture journalist at Swedish Radio who has lived and studied in Beijing for four years, criticizes Dagens Nyheter for what he describes as running a month-long campaign against Mo.

Sommardal recently wrote in the tabloid Aftonbladet that it is nearly impossible to judge, from the outside, how little or how much, one author needs to do or say to not be considered part of an authoritarian regime.

"He has to have kind of a modus vivendi under the dictatorship or leadership of the Communist party so as a private person he tries to balance being in the party and being a free writer,” Sommardal says. “But it’s very wrong to say that he has always been someone who has been very close to the Communist party.”

Sommardal admits that Mo is a controversial pick and agrees that people will talk about the politics of any prize winner. But he says the Nobel Prize in Literature is always awarded on literary merits.

"His books in the historical context have always criticized the orthodox view of Chinese history, what is happening, what people are, how you see classes in the countryside,” says Sommardal.

Meanwhile, the man at the center of the debate, Mo has been spending the past few days in Stockholm.

He delivered a Nobel lecture last Thursday. And his statement that government censorship is necessary to limit rumors and defamation did not go over too well among his detractors.

Mo will pick up his award this afternoon and deliver his acceptance speech tonight at Stockholm City Hall.

The debate over whether or not he is a stooge of the Communist party will long outlast his speech. As will the debate over how much an artist can do or say under an authoritarian regime.

It seems like one of the only thing his supporters and detractors can agree on, is that Mo Yan is a great writer.

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